O’Henry to me represents an American archetype in literature and it is interesting to note how that archetype has changed, or one can argue, no longer exists. When I think of classic American style in short stories a few authors come to mind: O’Henry, London, Irving, Fitzgerald, Poe and O’Connor. Each represents a particular time, region or style. London the pioneering spirit, Fitzgerald the jazz age, Irving the colonial period and along with Poe the supernatural, O’Connor the South. O’Henry is quintessentially American in locale as well as representative of a style of story. These stories are O’Henry award winners because they have a particular style that evokes his spirit. Interestingly, I found these stories to be quintessentially American. I sit here drinking coffee from Mexico, wearing a shirt made in India, typing on a computer made in China. These stories are like that too. Some take place in the United States but they involve immigrants and their own personal integration to this country; others involve Americans living or travelling abroad (and behaving badly) or naturalized Americans dealing with feelings of being an outsider to their culture of birth. They are who we are now and they all, like Paul Simon says, sing an American tune.
I think it is important to not provide too much detail on the stories because many of them pack a surprise or some other twist (in the O’Henry tradition) that would be spoiled by too much information. Here are my favorites. The very first story, the comical yet vaguely sinister “Finding Billy White Feather—which leaves the reader reeling and in no better position than the confused story teller starts this collection off on a very high note. “A Permanent Member of the Family,” “The Seals,” “Cabins,” “Word of Mouth,” and “The Golden Rule” deal with the types of events that are defining moments in a family history and are all deeply moving in their own way. The collection contains notes from the authors and I was not surprised to read that another favorite “A Permanent Member of the Family” happened pretty much as described in the story. As I was reading it I couldn’t help but think that it, or something just like it, happened to the author. Many of the above stories have a strong sense of autobiography about them.
I also enjoyed the stories that took place in other countries and the internal cultural commentary within them. Another favorite was “A Ride Out of Phrao” in which a naturalized American woman of middle eastern descent has moved to a small village in rural China. She never felt completely at home in America, yet it has become her home. She is very much an outsider in China but is adapting. Finally, she is culturally separated from her successful daughter. I found the story fascinating and quite moving.
Other stories that I enjoyed:
“About My Aunt”—fascinating story about two women and how one’s primary value is independence and the other is completely dependent on others, yet both appear content, set in the back drop of Hurricane Sandy.
“My Grandmother Tells Me A Story”—I couldn’t help thinking that I was very glad my grandmother never told me a story like that—a story that would change the way you look at her forever.
Even though I have highlighted a few stories, I have to say that the entire collection is first rate and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-crafted literary fiction.